‘Un Amor’ Review: An Excellent Laia Costa Brightens Isabel Coixet’s Dark Return to Form

3 min

128 shares, 189 points

The negotiations of adult sexual relationships, as well as the demands forced upon single women in society, are recurring fascinations in the work of Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet, albeit to erratic effect: In recent years, particularly in such English-language efforts as “It Snows in Benidorm” and “The Bookshop,” her voice has felt unconfident, even a little stifled. But Coixet strikes with a renewed sense of conviction in “Un Amor,” an adaptation of Sara Mesa’s Spanish-language bestseller that plays to her unusual strengths as a full-blooded feminist filmmaker. Making no cozy compromises in its portrayal of a young woman socially and sexually exploited by rural patriarchy — while still foregrounding the consuming strength and autonomy of her desire — it’s a tricky balancing act that mostly works, thanks also to a crackling lead performance by Laia Costa.

The combined draws of Costa and popular, much-translated source material should ensure “Un Amor” many further festival dates and relatively widespread arthouse exposure following its premiere in the main competition at San Sebastián. But this is not obviously crowdpleasing fare: “Un Amor’s” gender politics are commendably complex, and its study of sex as social currency both frank and occasionally disturbing. It’s a film that certainly invites keen post-screening debate over the motivations and moral standing of multiple characters, including those of Nat, Costa’s predominantly sympathetic but self-sabotaging heroine.

Coixet wrongfoots us at the outset, opening not on Nat but with vérité-style interview footage of a Sudanese refugee, recounting her arduous journey to Europe with plainly harrowed but unflinching candor. We come to understand this is one of many testimonies that Nat, a freelance translator, handled in her previous job, and return to it at repeated intervals in the film. This framing risks putting Nat’s very different experiences of abuse in dismissive perspective, but instead gradually makes sense of her decision to pack up her previous urban life and move to a forbidding country settlement in Spain’s northern Aínsa-Sobrarbe region.

As rural escapes go, it’s not an idyllic one: The village is gray and unphotogenic, surrounded by an impressive but austere landscape of rock and scrub, all under perennially overcast skies. The small house she rents is in a barely habitable state of disrepair, its leaking roof and crumbling walls shrugged off by a landlord (Luis Bermejo) whose sexist surliness increasingly edges into the psychotic. He’s the most outwardly hostile member of a prickly community that regards her with near-uniform suspicion. At first only her neighbor Piter (Hugo Silva), a self-styled stained-glass artist, makes friendly overtures, but always with a guilt-tripping pushiness that’s a severe red flag.

Taking a more quietly direct approach is Andreas (Hovik Keuchkerian), a bearish, taciturn handyman of indeterminate origin whom the locals dub “the German” — and it’s perhaps this shared marginalized status that emboldens him to knock on Nat’s door one evening and ask her to sleep with him, in exchange for free home repairs. Utterly bemused, she refuses, only to show up at his place the next day with a changed mind: Coixet and co-scripter Laura Ferrero write this startling transaction with few words, the terms of the arrangement underlined in the actors’ complicit expressions and contrasting body language.

Yet what begins as one-time deal soon escalates, by dint of mutual loneliness if no great personal compatibility, into a heated carnal affair that shifts Nat’s already fragile social position in the village — and on which our hitherto self-contained protagonist grows alarmingly dependent. It’s an improbable turn of events on paper, but one the actors make convincing, both projecting a nervy reticence that somehow sparks into passive-aggressive chemistry. Calm but never quite peaceful, with a latent violence in his placid gaze, Keuchkerian is a riveting foil, but this is Costa’s film, driven by her watchful curiosity and straight-backed air of determination. Her Nat is vulnerable, protective of her internal wounds, but with a glimmer of wry humor that wards off the film’s potential dourness.

Costa’s performance has enough visibly restless energy, twitching beneath her well-behaved facade, that a climactic burst into wild, free-form dance feels a little over-determined — a cinematic flourish that supersedes the character’s sharply drawn instincts. But it’s a forgivably expressive curlicue in a film otherwise shorn of its director’s most whimsical impulses, told with rigor and penetrating human interest, its simple title belying a panoply of nuances behind the idea of love — of self and others — and how it nourishes or destroys us.

Source: Variety

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128 shares, 189 points

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